Tremendous Wound - Three Local Medical Personnel Return from Haiti
April 01, 2010
‘Tremendous wound’: Three local medical personnel return from Haiti
By Magdalena Wegrzyn
© 2010 Longmont Times-Call
LONGMONT — Peter Schmid describes Haiti as a “war zone.”
“What you see in a picture or in a camera lens is only a keyhole of the atrocities going on down there,” said Schmid, a plastic surgeon at Longmont’s Institute of Aesthetic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery who returned from the country last week.
Schmid and Curtis Weibel, a family nurse practitioner at Timberline Medical Family Practice and Urgent Care in Estes Park, returned Tuesday from Haiti.
Boulder resident Mark Hammerberg, an orthopedic surgeon at Front Range Orthopedics in Longmont, returned Feb. 2 from a separate trip to the country.
His assessment of the situation?
“It’s hell on earth,” he said.
‘They’re calling for you’
Hammerberg, who practices at Longmont United Hospital and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, joined a team of physicians for a 12-day trip to the country.
The mission was organized by Jodel Charles, a Haitian immigrant from Denver whose parents are physicians in Leogane, a town 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Hammerberg learned about the effort from his physician’s assistant’s wife and signed up.
“It’s a unique opportunity to make use of a particular skill set,” he said. “They weren’t calling for lawyers. They weren’t calling for CPAs. They’re calling for you.”
The team, including a podiatrist, pediatrician, family practice physician and several nurses, arrived in the country Jan. 22 — 10 days after a magnitude-7 earthquake hit the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
Hammerberg’s group joined doctors who had set up a temporary hospital at the Faculté des Sciences Infirmières, a nursing school in Leogane. Doctors worked in three makeshift operating rooms in the school’s dormitory, and medical staff treated 200 to 600 patients each day, he said.
“It’s not very glamorous work,” said Hammerberg, who worked at a Level I trauma center in Atlanta for nearly four years. “We took care of open wounds long enough and well enough that the plastic surgeons could do skin grafts.”
Although the work requires distance, some patients stick out, he said. Hammerberg treated a 4-year-old boy with a nerve injury in one foot. The other foot had been amputated above the knee.
“You could see that all this kid wanted to do was cling to his father,” Hammerberg said. “You can’t help but wonder what’s going to become of him.”
‘We should be here’
Schmid said he was moved by CNN reporter Anderson Cooper’s call for physicians. He enlisted Weibel, a Pinewood Springs resident he once trained, to accompany him.
The duo planned to head down with International Medical Relief, a nonprofit founded by Loveland resident Shauna King that sends medical professionals to disaster areas.
But when they learned they couldn’t join a group for two weeks, they took matters into their own hands. King connected them with a medical team from the University of Miami that was on the ground. That same day, the men bought plane tickets, and they took a red-eye flight on Jan. 31 into the Dominican Republic and trekked to Haiti via cab, plane and bus.
After seeing relatively stable patients at the University of Miami’s tent hospital near the airport in Port-au-Prince, they opted to venture into more remote communities.
Escorted by armed military, they spent two days treating about 200 patients out of a clinic in a Baptist school in Bel Air, a crime-riddled slum of Port-au-Prince. They spent the remainder of their stay working at a downtown Port-au-Prince hospital.
Because they arrived nearly three weeks after the quake, Schmid and Weibel treated patients for infected wounds, compound fractures, abscesses, diarrhea and persistent coughs. Several children had chest pains, which likely were caused by anxiety, Schmid said.
Weibel has worked in rudimentary clinics in India and Mexico, but he said those experiences don’t compare to the conditions in Haiti.
“There was no cautery, no irrigation, no water,” he said. “We had no oxygen, so the anesthesia guys put everyone out with ketamine. ... The surgical fields were nonexistent.”
Weibel recalls treating a woman and her newborn in the clinic. The baby was born transversed — meaning he did not come out head-first — and his neck and arm were contorted.
As he looked at the baby, Weibel felt a lump growing in his throat. The baby was wearing an Estes Park tourist T-shirt. It was a stark reminder of home.
“That reaffirmed that yes, we should be here,” he said. “We were there for reason. That was one of those times that was like, ‘Wow, it’s not about us.’”
Putting it in perspective
Now safely back at home, the three men said their trips have put life in perspective.
“It gave me perspective on how some people have problems and some people have real problems,” Hammerberg said. “My situation in the world is so many orders of magnitude better than what I have seen. There’s no way you can complain.”
“I wish I could take a lot of people over there and say, ‘See you don’t have it so bad after all,’ ” he said.
All three men said they’d like to return to Haiti in the future. The country is still in tremendous need and will continue to need support for decades, Schmid said.
“My only analogy is I felt like I was able to set one stitch in a big, tremendous wound,” he said.
Magdalena Wegrzyn can be reached at 303-684-5274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.